Last-Minute Judge Comments Urge Reform

     (CN) – Comments from California judges urging reform of their central bureaucracy continued to pour into a state website, with the governing body of the courts meeting later this week to consider the flood of robed opinion.



     The big majority — roughly 90 percent — of the judges urge support for the fundamental reforms proposed by a committee of judges, that include radically downsizing the central bureaucracy and taking away its role in setting policy.
     “Please do not squander this opportunity. Implement the recommendations immediately,” wrote Judge Bryan Stainfield from Kern County.
     “I urge you to begin the process of implementing its recommendations as soon as possible,” wrote Judge Jeffrey Penney from Placer County.
     Since the unenforced July 22 deadline for comment, another 40 judges have published their opinions, with 35 of them pushing to enforce the changes proposed by the Strategic Evaluation Committee in a 221-page report.
     They join another 400 judges who posted comments pushing for reform in the run-up to the deadline.
     Included in the latest batch are three judges from Riverside; Michael Donner, Kelly Hansen and Elisabeth Sichel. “It is clear to me that I needed to join each of my colleagues in the State who are urging the Judicial Council to accept and implement each of the recommendations that are expressed in the SEC report,” wrote Donner.
     In another recent comment, Judge Harry Elias from San Diego wrote of the negative trend since centralization of court finances and rule-making — a consolidation that gave the bureaucracy an enormous amount of power — as part of legislation passed in 1998.
     “After awhile, it seemed that the decisions of our court were being made more by the administrative wing of our Court than our judges,” wrote Elias.
     From San Mateo, Judge Mark Forcum wrote, “Since 1998 the Judicial Council and AOC have sought to centralize judicial policy making and take control over the trial courts. The quest for more control of the trial courts hit a low point when the AOC tried to slip by a trailer bill that would have allowed them to select trial court Presiding Judges and Court executive officers. Incredibly the leadership of the AOC blamed this trailer bill on the Department of Finance which we now know was untrue.”
     Forcum went on to blast the bureaucracy and the council for abject management failures and self-indulgent spending.
     Referring to the defunct software project called the Court Case Management System, he wrote, “Since 1998, the AOC has been responsible for wasting billions of taxpayer dollars on failed projects like CCMS, unnecessary courthouse construction, management salary upgrades, allowing thirty of their managers to not have to contribute to their retirements and providing their managers with floating holidays, while trial court employees had their salaries reduced by AOC mandated furloughs.”
     Calling for action, he concluded, “Equally troubling is that the AOC accepts no responsibility for this incredible waste of taxpayer resources or the impact their wasteful spending has had on the trial courts now laying off staff and cutting back on necessary and vital court services. The Chief Justice and the Judicial Council must act now to implement the thoughtful well reasoned SEC recommendations. To dither, delay and pick apart the SEC report will only continue to undermine judicial branch credibility with the public, the Governor and the legislature.”
     Along the same lines, Judge Stainfield in Kern County wrote, “When the SEC report was first released, I was heartened to know that my viewpoint regarding these many issues did indeed have a voice. Unfortunately, since that time, it has become clear that this well considered report is being viewed as something to resist, rather than a road map back to credibility.”
     He continued, “The AOC was created to assist the Judiciary in the critical mission of dispensing justice. This is a mission at the core of what makes the United States of America different from all others. Nothing should be allowed under our Constitution to thwart this brave endeavor. For too long, the AOC has existed in a morphed state belying their original charter.”
     Coming from the 10% minority that expressed reservations with reform, a judge from Alpine County in the Sierra Nevada urged caution, saying the baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater.
     “Contrary to much of the public discourse, I have never — NEVER — encountered disinterest, arrogance or other than extreme courtesy and professionalism from every AOC employee with whom I have dealt,” wrote Judge David DeVore from Alpine, the smallest county in California with a population of 1,175. “Staff with whom I have had the privilege to work in curriculum development for the Cow Counties and other programs have been exemplary.”
     Some judges expressed suspicion that the Judicial Council and the administrators were simply stalling, trying to wait out the movement for reform. And a few expressed a loss of hope that the bureaucracy could be reformed or that the council could be moved to act independently.
     Judge Candace Beason of Los Angeles, for example, said some of her judicial colleagues had not bothered to comment at all, believing that the council would ignore them.
     “I have spoken with several colleagues who did not submit their comments. I was informed that they did not submit them because their past dealings with the AOC and Judicial Council’s request for input has been a waste of time,” wrote Beason in a recent posting. “All three remarked that they believed this was just a stalling technique and nothing would be done. They believe it was all a waste of time.”

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